Sunday, July 25, 2010

Shark Physiology: shark tournaments provide researchers with specimens and a moral dilemma

For marine biologists to better conserve and protect the creatures of the sea, they must understand them - their behaviors, their lifestyles, their physiology. To understand them from the inside out means having access to specimens for dissection and this poses one of the great moral scientific dilemmas: having to catch and kill the very animal you hope to protect.

Can this be done responsibly? Are there animals whose internal structures have been studied enough? Are there others resources for specimens available? In many cases the answer is "yes" but not for all. Sharks are one example. There's still much that is unknown about the inner workings of these important predators, but sharks decompose quickly so sharks found dead in the wild are not ideal for study. The same can be said of sharks commercially caught as bycatch or, if commercially sought after, that are immediately processed.

An article in the Cape Cod Times caught my attention as it addressed this issue by examining how researchers use shark tournaments as a means to gain access to suitable shark specimens. The article details how researchers from NOAA and other universities take advantage of the large, mature sharks that are caught to make quick dissections of their internal organs for study. The article is accompanied by a video showing the researchers at work during Massachusetts's long-running (and notorious to many shark advocates) Monster Shark Tournament.

I found the article and video to be very disturbing. Disturbing because it plays to that scientific moral dilemma that many shark advocates just don't like to think about. And for good reason. A 200+ pound mako is hoisted by its tail and brought onto the dock. People are commenting about how beautiful it is with it's cobalt blue body and sleek shape. It pained me to see it.

A large crowd is gathered to watch the festivities of sharks being hauled in. Is there a macabre fascination in seeing the infamous malevolent predator hanging unceremoniously by its tail; a vindication that, in the end, man conquers all? Fishermen are making toasts to their trophies, hoping to gain rewards - sometimes financially sizable whether offered legally or otherwise - and brandishing justifications that the shark meat will be provided to those in need. I can just see the child of a low-income family calling out, "Momma, mako steaks tonight!" Oh boy, shark fin soup - a favorite of the projects! Right. I get angry even as I write this.

But then there is the other side of the argument. The researchers, who are unable to afford boats and crews to go on selective fishing expeditions, are at least afforded some sort of access to fresh specimens for study. Tournaments that set specific rules regarding species, size and weight (favoring older, more mature sharks) garner a measure of favorable PR by providing researchers with the opportunity to do on-site dissections.

"While scientists can get some sharks from fishermen who catch them while targeting other species or from research cruises, large, sexually mature sharks are mainly seen only at tournaments. [NOAA biologist Lisa] Natanson credits tournaments such as the one in Oak Bluffs for welcoming researchers and for encouraging fishermen to land only large animals. Penalties are assessed for landed sharks that are under the weight limit, which is between 200 and 250 pounds, depending on the species.

'Without these tournaments, we'd have to go out and hire a boat and kill them ourselves, and that would be expensive,' said Greg Skomal, the state Division of Marine Fisheries' shark expert. Tournaments also offer college students the chance to do research necessary for advanced degrees. Skomal did his thesis on blue sharks with information gathered at shark contests."

Taking stomachs, intestines, livers, and other tissue samples, there have been some telling results ranging from parasites to diseases. As an example, the Cape Cod Times article sites three forms of cancer that have been found in adult shark specimens.

Shark advocates take note: CANCER HAS BEEN FOUND IN SHARKS, which debunks the belief that sharks resist cancer - one of the foundations behind the demand for shark products as homeopathic cures.

But still, I am troubled. There has got to be a better way. I support the efforts of organizations like the Shark Free Marinas Initiative, which gets marinas to cooperate by banning sharks from
their docks and promote catch-and-release techniques. And researchers have taken advantage of catch-and-release tournaments to take blood and tissue samples, and tag sharks with transmitters before the shark is released at sea. Recognizing that an outright ban of all shark fishing is unlikely, the Shark Free Marinas Initiative is taking an important incremental step forward and away from senseless slaughter for the sake of a trophy kill.

However, for scientists, the need for whole specimens for dissection is still there, as we are continually learning more and more about these important but threatened ocean animals. It is a dilemma that is not lost on the scientists, as they have ambivalent feelings, too.

"While she [University of Hartford biology professor, Joanna Borucinska] appreciates the information she is able to glean from tournaments, Borucinska said she would not be saddened if they went away. The crowd cheered when a big thresher shark was hoisted overhead. But the sight brought her no cheer.

'I never get excited (about seeing a shark on display), especially a big one,' she said. 'I get sad.'"

Professor, you're not the only one.

Click here to read the Cape Cod Times article and watch the video.


DaShark said...

As always, great post.

Whilst I reluctantly agree with the need for further necropsies, I'm however totally appalled by some of the sound bites.

Those interviews defending the shark kill tournaments are pathetic and coming from Shark biologists, just once again illustrate the pervasive fatal disconnect between research and what is ethically acceptable.


RTSea said...

Thanks for your compliment,comments, and link.

I, for one, was a bit taken aback by the biology grad student who said "Without this, I would have to get on a boat and go out fishing, and I'm not a very good fisherman." Amazing.

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